For a director who once showed so much promise, it is an undeniable shame that Neil Blomkamp’s so-called ‘South African’ trilogy has continued its sliding trajectory down from the heights of his debut feature District 9, through the heavy-handed mess that was Elysium towards the twisted pile of cinematic absurdity that is his latest feature, Chappie. There are things to like in all three films, but Chappie certainly is the runt of the litter.
Set in Johannesburg in the near future, A.I. specialist and robotics engineer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has propelled the weapons manufacturing company Tetravaal into the international spotlight with his design for robotic footsoldiers which, in an effort to stamp out crime, have been bought and utilised by the city’s police force. Working for the same company, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) feels sidelined by Wilson’s success; his robotic creation, a gargantuan tank-like robot – which is controlled by a human user and not by A.I. – has been deemed as overkill by both the police force and the company’s CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Whilst relishing the success of his commercial design, Wilson is also working on a private project: freethinking A.I. which has the capacity to learn and feel emotion. After Bradley rejects his proposal to install a prototype of this revolutionary A.I. software on one of the company’s obsolete footsoldier robots, Wilson decides to go ahead with the plan anyway, stealing the remains of a robot and the hardware needed to install the software. Wilson’s plan soon goes awry when he is intercepted by a couple of low-life criminals, Ninja and Yolandi, who kidnap the engineer in order to force him to produce some kind of ‘off switch’ which can be used against the police robots that the pair frequently come into contact with during their robberies and crimes. Captured by the criminal duo, Wilson convinces them to allow him to install the A.I. software on the defunct robot. The result is ‘Chappie’ (voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley).
From here the film offers a rather predictable story in which Chappie becomes the central focus and epicentre of a conflict between those who wish to see him develop naturally and those who want to use him for criminal gain. As Chappie bounces back and forth between Ninja and Yolandi who teach him how to be a ‘gangster’ and Wilson who wants to educate Chappie about the world around him, the film itself seems to have a hard time locating where it should fall tonally between a PG and a 15 certificate. The result is a film which shifts uncomfortably between innocent fable, with Chappie taking on a childlike naivete as he takes his fumbling first steps into this brave new world, and an adrenaline and blood soaked action spectacle soundtracked by rap and gun fire. It’s almost as if Bambi had been introduced to the world of GTA. Whilst being tonally uneven, Chappie is also let down by its simple and frustratingly clumsy philosophising which makes it come across as thinking it is more intelligent than it actually is. Amongst other groan worthy moments, Chappie is distraught when he discovers that his battery only has a small amount of power left and that he will die when it runs out, prompting him to deride Wilson, his ‘creator’, for giving him a body which will ultimately fail. Heavy-handed analogies aside, this narrative arc, which provides the element of against-the-clock immediacy that aims to amp up the film’s tension, feels lazy and unimaginative when you consider that both District 9 and Elysium also featured protagonists whose bodies were in rapid deterioration and that this element of both films shaped much of their storytelling trajectory.
Chappie just seems to the be the product of ideas that worked in both of the director’s previous films, regardless of whether they were particularly good ideas or not. Added to this are the inclusion of a number of frankly bizarre touches such as the casting of rap duo Die Antwoord as Ninja and Yolandi (are they playing themselves?) or the fact that Hugh Jackman’s software engineer character walks around the office in shorts and with a holstered gun. At one point, Yolandi walks into the scene wearing a t-shirt featuring a picture of Chappie and his name. Are we to believe the character just took a break away from the action to produce this item of clothing or is it more likely the rapper came to the set in a crew shirt and by that point Blomkamp was beyond caring? If this really is the end of Blomkamp’s South African trilogy then I for one am not that upset. What worries me more is the director’s much publicised, confirmed and upcoming venture into the world of the Alien franchise which will see Weaver return as Ripley and potentially rewrite the canon itself. Even if Blomkamp manages to stay clear of having Ripley go head-to-head with a bunch of ‘fucking prawns’ or cast Yolandi in the role of a grown-up Newt, Chappie doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in the director’s ability to navigate the Xenomorph-patrolled corridors of Ridley Scott’s legacy.